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On the Road
With St. Paul

by James Philipps

The memory is as clear to me now as the day it happened. My little brother and I were playing and I was tormenting him about something until he burst out crying. I had been there and done that many times before.

But this day something amazing happened: I felt really bad that I had hurt his feelings and I went into the bedroom to apologize! For the first time, I realized that my little brother was a person with feelings.

Have you ever had a moment like this when you've suddenly seen yourself or the people around you in a whole new light? If so, then you will find in St. Paul a person who really understands all the ups and downs involved in growing up—physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Spend some time in this Youth Update traveling with St. Paul as he struggles to get to know Jesus—and himself. Most biblical references are easily found in the Acts of the Apostles. All others are noted in parentheses, for your convenience in your own travels with Paul.

Paul Sees the Light

When you are first introduced to Paul in the Acts of the Apostles, he is hard at work "trying to destroy the Church." At this point in the story, Paul is referred to by his Jewish given name, Saul.

A devout Jew, this young man, probably just out of his teens, fervently believes that his Jewish brothers and sisters who proclaim Jesus as their Savior (Messiah in Hebrew; Christ in Greek) are glorifying a known criminal at the expense of their most deeply held religious beliefs. He decides to put a stop to things once and for all in the city of Damascus by arresting any followers of Jesus—soon to be known as Christians—that he finds there.

Something extraordinary happens to Paul on the way to this large city located about 90 miles from Jerusalem in the Roman province of Syria. Just as the closest friends of Jesus did on that first Easter Sunday, Paul meets the risen Christ: "On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?'"

In that moment, Saul sees Jesus as the fullest expression of the special love relationship between God and humanity that his Jewish faith celebrates. His misplaced zeal has been driving him to attack the source of love and truth for which he has been searching his whole life! That inner vision is matched by an outer blindness.

Against the Current

Saul's full transformation into Paul is not instantaneous. After his profound experience near Damascus, he is led into that city to the home of a Christian believer named Ananias who baptizes him Paul. (Often in the Bible, a character's name change symbolizes a basic life change as well.) Immediately after the baptism, "things like scales" fall from his eyes and Paul can see again.

After his adventure, Paul spends some time in the deserts of Arabia before embarking on the ministry he will pursue the rest of his life (see Galatians 1:17). While he doesn't elaborate on what he did during this time, it's likely that he reflects and prays about his new calling.

When Paul talks about his new beliefs in public, the response he gets from his audiences is unanimous. Thumbs down! Nobody likes him.

Feeling terribly betrayed, the Jews in Damascus who supported Paul in his attempts to persecute the Christians plot to kill him. Paul leaves Damascus at night in order to foil the plot and succeeds only with help from his friends: "...his [Paul's] disciples took him one night and let him down through an opening in the [city] wall, lowering him in a basket."

Paul's luck doesn't get much better in Jerusalem. When he had left town, he was known as an enemy of the Christians who lived there. Now he's back claiming to be one of them! Just as you would be if a classmate who has been teasing you now claims to be your friend, the disciples of Jesus are suspicious.

Fortunately for Paul and for the Church he would help to build, a disciple of Jesus named Barnabas takes Paul under his wing and introduces him to Peter and the other leaders of the Christian community. For a while things are calm, but eventually another plot against Paul is formed. Once again Paul has to be smuggled out of town. This time Paul heads for home, the city of Tarsus located on the southeastern shore of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

It may be hard for you to understand how any talk about religious beliefs could get a person in so much trouble with the authorities. In our country, no particular religion is promoted or prohibited. This was not true in the ancient world when the emperor was seen as a god and religious law and civil law intertwined. Any person who questioned the official religion of a region was also seen as a threat to the local civil authorities.

Hitting the Road

Experiences such as these must have helped Paul to understand that his mission was going to be markedly different from that of the other eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. Like a rock star promoting his albums on a concert tour, Paul now spends his life on the road.

He makes three journeys through the population centers of the Roman Empire that surrounded the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. In each city that he visits, places such as Athens and Corinth in Greece, Ephesus in Asia Minor and Antioch in Syria, Paul proclaims the good news about Jesus. Eventually, Paul does make it to the big stage—Rome, the capital city of the Empire—but not in the way he expected (more about that later).

Paul is able to travel as extensively as he does because of the efficiency of the Roman system of roads and the peace forcibly kept by the Roman army among the various peoples Rome has conquered. But Paul's travels are far from easy.

Mostly his message about a God who would become human and then give his life out of love for all human beings is ridiculed and sometimes violently rejected by both Jews and non-Jews (also called gentiles) alike. The gods and goddesses of most ancient religions, with few exceptions, were imagined as beings with tremendous power who transcended the petty concerns of human beings. Even Judaism, which developed a radically different understanding of God, saw such a concept as a gross insult to God's transcendent power and glory.

Toward the end of the first journey, as Paul and Barnabas are heading back toward Antioch, a group of angry Jews meets them on the road, throws stones at Paul and leaves him for dead. Just after Paul and his new traveling companion, Silas, enter into Europe on the second journey—the first time the gospel message would be proclaimed there—a group of disgruntled slave owners in a town called Philippi have the pair arrested and beaten by the local authorities. They are charged with conspiring to cause a riot.

Paul and Silas make their escape only because of a miracle. As Paul is preaching in Ephesus during the third journey, he is almost killed by an angry mob worked up by a group of local merchants who are horrified at the number of Ephesians abandoning the worship of the pagan goddess Artemis. They have been watching their profits evaporate as sales of expensive silver trinkets and statues related to Artemis plummet. (Probably the market for "Artemis Rules" T-shirts bottomed out also!)

The Word Spreads

Almost every town that Paul visits, however, holds a few people willing to listen. Some, such as Aquila and his wife Priscilla in Corinth, are Jews. Most, however, are gentiles who come from many backgrounds and cultures. They find in Paul's message about Jesus the source of hope and truth for which they have been searching in a culture that seems interested only in power and material wealth.

To Paul, all these people are his spiritual children. When he can no longer be with a community in person, he often keeps in touch by writing letters.

Preserved within the New Testament are seven of these letters from the hand of Paul himself: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and a brief note to a man named Philemon. Several others (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) may not have been written by Paul himself but in any case are inspired by Paul's ministry. (In the times that Paul lived, attributing a letter or book to a famous person was a way of showing respect—and of increasing the chance someone would actually read it!)

Unlike the Gospels or Luke's Acts of the Apostles, which were fashioned long after the events that they describe, Paul's letters preserve not only his thoughts but also his feelings at the time he wrote. These letters have a freshness and liveliness to them that still comes through 2,000 years later. They are the "e-mail" of the Bible.

God's Free Gift

For a lively communication, read Paul's letter to the people of Galatia, a mountainous area in the center of Asia Minor. The Christian community in this region was being ripped apart by the most serious controversy facing the early Church.

Some Jewish Christians felt that becoming a follower of Jesus was a two-step process. First, a person became a Jew, then he or she could be baptized as a Christian.

Paul always opposes this point of view; either God's gift to us through Jesus is an act of unconditional love or it isn't. If it is, Paul maintains, then the only thing a person needs to do is accept the gift through Baptism and live in communion with the rest of the Church.

Did you ever experience the frustration of trying to tell a friend something really important and not being able to make him or her understand what you mean? Paul's been there: "O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? I want to learn only this from you: did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from faith in what you heard? Are you so stupid?" (Galatians 3:1-3).

Apparently, Paul's "tough love" approach worked. Later evidence suggests that the Christian churches of Asia Minor were some of the strongest in the early centuries of Christian history. The first part of the Book of Revelation is addressed to seven churches in this region, and one of the earliest Christian martyrs—St. Polycarp—was a bishop from Asia Minor.

Love Is...

What comes through most clearly in Paul's letters is his experience of God's love. Behind everything that Paul writes, underlying every argument he makes, is a fervent desire to tell each of the members of the faith communities he founded just how much God loves them. And just what is the kind of love God has shown for us and calls us to show to others? Paul's answer to this question posed by the members of the Church at Corinth is perhaps the most beautiful description of love ever recorded: "Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails" (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

Homecoming

The end of Paul's life is shrouded in mystery. At the end of Acts of the Apostles, Paul's tendency to attract trouble wherever he goes has come to the attention of the Romans. He hits the "Big Time" when he is sent to Rome on charges of causing a riot in Jerusalem at the end of his third journey. (The account of Paul's arrest in Jerusalem, imprisonment in Cesarea and sea voyage to Rome reads like the plot of an action movie.)

Paul indicates in his letter to the Church in Rome that he is planning a fourth journey to Spain (Romans 15:24), but we don't know if he ever went. There is a tradition in the Catholic Church that Paul was beheaded during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero in 64-65 A.D.

There is no mystery about how important Paul's life and ministry have been to the Church, however. Paul's faithful attempts to help others experience the presence of the risen Christ in their lives in spite of persecution and hardship helped the gospel message to take root in many different cities and towns throughout the Roman Empire. The small communities that Paul founded would become the backbone of the Christian Church that eventually converted the whole Roman Empire.

Paul's own appraisal of the work that he had done for Jesus is humble and to the point: "But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed....For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (2 Corinthians 4:7-9,11). For Paul, no matter what God called him to do, it was always a labor of love.

James Philipps is a teacher of religious education on the high school, college and graduate levels.

Andrew "Jingles" Elekes (15), Zak Kennedy (15), Nick O'Donoughue (17) and Caroline Powers (15) are members of the San Juan Del Rio Senior High School Ministry in Switzerland, Florida. They met over all-you-can-eat pizza with their youth minister, Christina Davis, where they read, discussed and posed questions about this Youth Update.

 

Q.

What was Paul's relationship with the apostles?

A.

It was complicated, but there was always a sense of mutual respect. According to Acts, Paul goes first to the apostles in Jerusalem before beginning his journeys and then heads off with their blessing. Paul's mission to the gentile world seems to have sometimes placed him at odds with those apostles—such as Peter—who were primarily focused on convincing their fellow Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Paul describes a pretty unpleasant encounter he had with Peter in his letter to the Galatians over issues related to this conflict (see Galatians 2 for the gory details).

Q.

How did Paul manage to eat, and where did he sleep on his journeys?

A.

According to the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, Paul made tents for a living. Presumably, he continued to do so even while he was involved in his ministry. He seems to have taken pride in being able to provide for himself. (See Acts 21:34-40.) Hospitality to strangers was also an important value in Paul's culture. There were probably always a few sympathetic souls wherever he went who saw to it that he didn't go hungry!

Q.

Is anything like the travels of Paul happening right now?

A.

I see our pope's travels throughout the world as his way of being a missionary like Paul. Wherever he goes, he tries to explain how Jesus' teachings apply to that particular culture or group. Judging by the crowds he draws, a lot of people are getting the message. Paul struggled to find a way to make people understand why believing that Jesus was the Messiah would change their lives. Each of us, in whatever ways we can, are called by God to do the very same thing. In many ways, the cultural diversity of our country matches that of the Roman Empire at the time that Paul lived, so we'll need all the conviction and creativity the Holy Spirit can provide!

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